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A Historical Biography

M.S. Ganesh

By Suparna Gooptu
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. xxv 241, Rs. 495.00


Anglophilia has long afflicted the average educated Indian Parsi. It was so in the Victorian era. It is so now. Cornelia Sorabji was no exception. Though only half a Parsi, she did not do things by halves.   Anglorientation likewise has long enticed the (always) above average educated Bengali, whether wholly Calcuttan or partly Prabashi. It was so in the age of Empire. It is so now. Suparna Gooptu is no exception. She does not do things by halves either.   The book under review is a happy consensus ad idem between a posthumously serendipitous but relatively unheard of lawyer and an equally fortunate academician in quest of a subject for her doctoral degree. As a genre, the biography of an unknown Indian and the autobiography of an unknown Indian in the Continent of Circe, where West meets East, have tended to be written in the same language but in different idioms. Cornelia Sorabji personified that conjunction literally within India, as she moved from Nasik/Belgaum/Poona to Calcutta; she epitomized that meeting metaphorically in her belief that Britannia must ever rule the waves on India’s shores for India’s own good. In that process, as her story unfolds and when the curtain drops, she suffered a double whammy.   Gooptu has told a sensitive and compas-sionate tale in ‘the format of a historical biography’ (p. xxiii).   Cornelia was the first woman to study law in Oxford; the second Indian woman Barrister (Mithan Tata pipped her to the post); and the first woman Barrister to practice in Calcutta (pp.1, 155n.1). In all these phases, she suffered gender and racial discrimination from her superiors and peers, from the palefaces and the brown faces alike. Yet, paradoxically, and almost masochistically, ‘she was an ardent supporter of the British Raj in India and a critic of mainstream Indian nationalist politics’ (p. 2) with ‘implicit faith in the Empire ………. as a calling and a vocation, a cause that had to be defended’ and ‘a pathetic belief in its permanence’ (p. 181). She opposed Indian social transformation through legislation and dissented from Pundita Ramabai (p. 61). What made her tick?   Cornelia was born on 15th November, 1866 to the Reverend Sorabji Kharsedji, a Parsi of Nasik who converted to Christianity in 1841 when he was 18, and Franscina Santya, a Toda tribal girl who had been adopted by Colonel Sir Francis and Lady Ford and who grew up as an Indian Christian (pp.11, 17). ...

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